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Deadpool 2 casually subverts some of superhero movies’ most toxic clichés

Beneath the film’s gleeful raunch and gore hides an empathetic heart.

20th Century Fox

Though Deadpool is most celebrated for breaking box office records and paving the way for R-rated superhero movies, when it was released in 2016, some commenters noted that Deadpool had surprisingly forward-thinking attitudes about sex and gender roles. Ryan Reynolds’s fourth-wall-breaking, foul-mouthed, extremely violent superpowered mercenary might seem an unlikely vector for progressive messages, yet under the smirking immaturity, Deadpool possesses a surprising inner sincerity, something that’s far more apparent in the new sequel Deadpool 2.

Despite the films’ marketing, which emphasizes the title character’s outrageousness, the series leans far more heavily on pop culture references, superhero genre in-jokes, and Looney-Tunes-with-gore slapstick for humor, rather than anything overtly “edgy” or “un-PC” — uncomfortably mean-spirited jokes are relatively rare. (Granted, this interpretation relies on the viewer being fine with Deadpool and others getting subjected to truly ridiculous levels of bodily harm, but again, that cartoonish effect leavens the brutality.) In Deadpool 2, this element combines with a story about trying to reach a troubled youth, creating an overall effect that’s legitimately empathetic.

That’s not to say that the film is standing on rock-solid moral ground. While offensive humor might not be its main mission, there are still jokes about, for instance, sexually abusive scoutmasters, or at the expense of Deadpool’s roommate Blind Al, played by Leslie Uggams. (The film has nothing but love for her, but again, “Blind Al.”) And then there’s the fact that the production chose to keep on T.J. Miller’s character despite the sexual harassment and assault allegations against the actor. This is less an indictment of this movie specifically than it is yet another example of a systemic problem in Hollywood, but it’s an issue nonetheless.

However, due to studios’ desire to appeal to as broad an audience as possible in order to rake in the largest possible returns, big-budget filmmaking isn’t generally conducive to overt messaging beyond universally agreed-upon things like “Friendship is good” or “Mass murder is bad.” Filmmakers within the Marvel brand have had to work around these strictures to introduce more complex ideas, as Ryan Coogler did with this year’s Black Panther. But most wouldn’t expect Deadpool to do anything beyond making with the funny.

And they’d be wrong! Here are three things about the film that suggest Deadpool 2’s ostensibly black heart might in fact be made of gold.

It has the first out queer couple in a mainstream superhero film

Shioli Kutsuna (Yukio) and Brianna Hildebrand (Negasonic Teenage Warhead) in Deadpool 2
Hey, Yukio!
Joe Lederer/20th Century Fox

In the comics, Deadpool is pansexual, and Shatterstar, who shows up in Deadpool 2 in a minor role, is bisexual. These qualities are either absent or unmentioned in the film, but it does nonetheless feature a breakthrough in queer superhero representation.

Early on, we’re reintroduced to young X-Men member Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), a breakout star of the original who has a smaller but still fairly substantial role in the sequel. We’re then introduced to the new character Yukio (Shioli Kutsuna), her girlfriend.

The movie doesn’t make a big deal of it; there aren’t any leering jokes about lesbians, only delight on Deadpool’s part at Yukio’s appearance. Alas, there also isn’t much in the way of a dramatic arc for the pair, who mostly just pop in around the story’s edges. Yet the mere inclusion of this relationship is a landmark itself: It’s been a decade since Iron Man kicked off a major glut of superhero films, and nearly two since X-Men reinvigorated the genre in the first place, and these are the first named queer characters in a superhero film — canonical, confirmed within the material itself, and unambiguous.

Last year’s Power Rangers technically broke this ground by including a character questioning her sexuality, but that film’s handling of the subject was rather downplayed. Wonder Woman and the Amazons of Themyscira are canonically queer in the comics, but that’s left as subtext in the 2016 film. Thor: Ragnarok’s Valkyrie, played by Tessa Thompson, is canonically bisexual (according to the comics and Thompson herself), but footage confirming that was cut from the final film. Same goes for this year’s Black Panther, which reportedly cut a flirtatious moment between two women of the Dora Milaje.

In contrast, Deadpool 2’s matter-of-factness surrounding Negasonic Teenage Warhead and Yukio’s relationship is refreshing. This shouldn’t be a big deal in 2018, and that this is a major first for superhero films is less an accolade of this movie than a poor reflection on the genre’s (non)treatment of LGBTQ characters in general.

Most damning of all, it’s fully possible that Deadpool 2 could only “get away” with this because of its R rating: Until very recently (in fact, until just a few months ago with Love, Simon), including LGBTQ characters was all but an automatic ticket to an R from the MPAA. A hypothetical PG-13 version of Deadpool (and as hard as that may be to imagine now, it was a possibility for a while) might not have even been allowed the very simple level of representation the film has. But as much as this highlights how far Hollywood still has to go in this area, it’s still a positive step forward.

The story makes better use of mutants as a metaphor for oppressed groups than any of the “serious” X-Men films

Julian Dennison as Russell in Deadpool 2
It’s hard out there for a teenage mutant.
Joe Lederer/20th Century Fox

The X-Men were explicitly conceived as a way to explore prejudice and oppression within the realm of superhero comics, and the various X-men films have followed this conceit; their depictions of mutant struggles have alluded to real-life discrimination faced by Jews, people of color, queer people, and more.

But the parable has always been … shaky, to say the least. Hatred of racial or sexual minorities is irrational; fear of people who can melt steel with their eyes or shape-shift is kind of understandable. Further muddling the metaphor, the X-Men more often fight other mutants than the humans who oppress them, and the threats facing them are on a massive science fiction scale rather than anything more based in reality. Aside from a few broad beats like, “Have you tried not being a mutant?” the films can only imagine this subject in terms of genocide — a hypothetical they’ve diluted through umpteen repetitions.

The first Deadpool only touched on this with a throwaway bit in which a guy mutters, “Fucking mutants,” after dealing with some of them. Deadpool 2 incorporates the theme to a much greater extent (and, in one joke, directly acknowledges the wonky way it’s been used in past iterations) but still doesn’t play it up too strongly. Yet this broad comedy approaches the idea of mutant oppression more intelligently and with more nuance than any of the straight-faced entries in the main X-Men film series.

The film’s plot revolves around Deadpool trying to protect teenage mutant Russell (Julian Dennison) from time traveler Cable (Josh Brolin), who wants to kill the boy before he grows up to become a feared criminal. In the present, Russell is merely a troubled kid who’s fallen prey to a repressive foster home, the Essex House, a dark mirror of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. The headmaster tortures the students while muttering, “Blessed are the wicked who are healed by my hands,” seeking to force them to suppress their abilities.

There’s an obvious parallel here to gay and transgender conversion therapy, but it more broadly evokes myriad real-life problems within the American foster care system, as well as institutional mistreatment of “criminal” youth. We also see Deadpool and Russell sent to an all-mutant prison, and the movie directly links its squalid conditions to those of Essex House.

Deadpool 2 thus reshapes the overarching X-Men metaphor to a broader definition than we’ve seen before. Rather than mutants being alternately analogues of queer people, black people, etc., they can be seen as every oppressed group at once, a representation of the underclass. It embraces the fluidity of the parable rather than haphazardly applying it.

The film pulls this off because it roots this in concrete experiences with direct referents in reality. Take away the superpowers, and it’s the story of two men arguing over whether a “bad” kid is fated to grow into a monster, and how believing in his future means battling multiple institutions that have already shoved him down the darker path. Russell, a young nonwhite boy (New Zealand actor Dennison is Māori), is essentially facing the self-fulfilling prophecy of criminalizing youths of color, in the form of a literal prophecy.

It undermines one of the most toxic clichés in comics

This part of the movie can’t be discussed without revealing a big spoiler, so proceed with caution.

Morena Baccarin as Vanessa in Deadpool 2
Kick back, Vanessa, you get to sit out most of this movie.
20th Century Fox

There’s a dismayingly common storytelling trope in comics wherein a male superhero’s girlfriend, wife, or other female relation will be tortured, de-powered, raped, and/or murdered solely to affect him as a character, with no regard for the woman. In 1999, a group of feminists created a website to catalog every instance of this phenomenon, naming it Women in Refrigerators after an example from Green Lantern No. 54, in which a supervillain kills Green Lantern’s girlfriend and leaves her body in a refrigerator for him to find.

Naming and drawing attention to “fridging” has sadly not cut down on its use over the years. It’s hardly limited to comics, but it’s prevalent within the superhero genre — and it’s filtered into the films in recent years as well, most prominently 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

Despite this cultural prevalence, Deadpool 2 screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick claim they’d never even heard of fridging before writing the film, and offer an explanation for their treatment of Vanessa that hews remarkably close to the textbook definition of the trope. (“Deadpool kind of works best when he’s had everything taken away from him, when he suffers.”) But in spite of their ignorance, Deadpool 2’s fridging is carried out in a manner that helps undermine some of the the trope’s more toxic implications.

After an action montage, the beginning of Deadpool 2 sees Deadpool and his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) celebrate their anniversary while planning to have a baby — a blazing warning sign for any woman in an action movie. Sure enough, some criminals Deadpool neglected to kill earlier break into their apartment, ultimately killing Vanessa. The movie itself acts surprised, with the opening credits consisting of nothing but stunned exclamations over what viewers just witnessed. Deadpool then spends the rest of the film struggling to muster the will to live, sometimes seeing heavenly afterlife glimpses of Vanessa that dispense ethereal advice to him. In the end, after some character development, Deadpool accepts her death. A woman must die so a man can grow as a person.

Except during the obligatory mid-credits sequence, Deadpool acquires Cable’s time travel device and then promptly uses it to kill Vanessa’s attackers and erase her death from the timeline. And thus does the entire story arc around her murder and Deadpool’s reaction to it become an elaborate piss-take of fridging.

While comic book characters often come back to life, this grace is extended far less often to fridged women. (For example, Alexandra DeWitt, Green Lantern’s girlfriend, has stayed dead, whereas Major Force, the villain who killed her, has died and come back multiple times.) This is likely a side effect of wishing to preserve whatever “lessons” are imparted to their men by their deaths, as well as a general feeling that comic book girlfriends are disposable. Deadpool 2 isn’t having any of that. It gleefully has its cake and eats it too.

Of course, Vanessa’s resurrection doesn’t change the fact that her death leaves her offscreen for most of the movie, to say nothing of the off-putting nature of her death in the first place. (Her role as the female lead is filled in by Zazie Beetz’s Domino, who is a capable and likable character in her own right, but Vanessa’s presence and especially her sweet relationship with Deadpool are still sorely missed.) And given Reese and Wernick’s statements on fridging, it’s safe to say this wasn’t intentional commentary on their part, but they’ve nonetheless stumbled unwittingly into an affirming statement on the worth of superhero girlfriends.

But that’s just another example of the contradictions that characterize Deadpool 2. It’s both sadistic and caring, thematically considerate and textually crass. Plenty of superhero movies have their hearts in the right place without necessarily delivering a coherent message. (Remember Captain America: The Winter Soldier and its incomprehensible exploration of the surveillance state?) Deadpool 2 holds no pretension of intellectual depth, and yet it manages to say and do more positive things than many of its contemporaries.

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